Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Trauma Informed Care in Everyday Supervision

By Julia Vizcaino

Resident Advisors are our first line of defense in almost every residential situation. During rounds RAs regularly encounter dangerous drinking behaviors, mental health concerns, suicidal ideation, sexual assaults, and a smorgasbord of other concerns. As a field, we emphasize the procedural response we want our students to follow in these scenarios, giving them flow charts, and duty protocols, and “behind closed door” simulations. It has become clear to me that there is another side of the RA experience we address far less frequently: secondhand trauma.

The typical RA is a student who does it all. Generally, they are ambitious, meeting grade requirements, conduct requirements, and doing a live-in job that most professionals outside of higher ed would not be able to handle. Because our students are handling professional level situations, it is easy to forget that they are students.

Residence Life professionals are often aware of terms such as “compassion fatigue” or “burnout”.  Many live-in professionals only stay in one place for around three years because of the high stakes, stress, and unrelenting schedule. As a field, our students aren’t always factored into this picture. As a supervisor, I want to make sure I do everything I can to keep my student staff from experiencing the burnout, compassion fatigue, or at worst traumatic stress or mental illness as a result of their work as an RA.

In a study of first responder’s done by Benedek, Fullerton, and Ursano (2007) showed three categories of response to trauma from first responders. Most commonly, “most people experience mild, transient distress such as sleep disturbance, fear, worry, anger, or sadness or increased use of tobacco or alcohol”. A smaller, second group, may experience “moderate symptoms such as persistent insomnia or anxiety or changes in travel patterns or workplace behavior”. Finally, a small subgroup may develop psychiatric illness as a result of the trauma, “such as PTSD or major depression”.

When a student staff member responds to duty calls on some of our most serious topics, they are not just responding to an anonymous call the way traditional first responders like firefighters or police officers might. Our students are responding to their peers, their classmates, their friends. I have seen RAs listen as close friends recount details of sexual assault, as classmates reveal their suicidal ideations, as they find their high school teammate unconscious from alcohol poisoning. Because RAs are in the center of their communities, they are deeply intertwined with the lives of their residents, and when conversations turn to serious topics, RAs are there to listen, support, and follow their protocols for these students. Why do we not have a protocol for helping our RAs, college students, who have now experienced the trauma of responding to a traumatic incident involving their fellow students?

The concept of trauma-informed care is often discussed in the world of Behavioral Intervention Teams. There are four main principles of trauma informed care according to Hopper, Bassuk, and Olivet (2010): trauma awareness, emphasis on safety, opportunities to rebuild control, and strengths-based approach.  I believe there is a way to incorporate each of these principles into everyday supervision of student staff.

Trauma Awareness:

The process of incorporating trauma-informed care into everyday supervision starts with an acknowledgement of the trauma students may face in their role. Our student staff members come from a variety of backgrounds, and may have a history of trauma that would be triggered by student behaviors in certain situations. A time for students to seriously reflect on what situations they may encounter, and how comfortable they would feel addressing them should happen early on. If a student staff member is aware of their own trauma and risks, they are going to be more likely to ask for help when things come up.

Emphasis on Safety:

Because student staff are responding to situations that involve a wide variety of stressors, one way to emphasize safety is to set clear roles and boundaries. Many of us who work in residence life know how difficult it can be to draw boundaries when you live where you work. Student staff should be encouraged to set realistic boundaries when they are not on-call. A student staff member should not be expected to report to incidents when they are off-duty, but should instead be trained in utilizing appropriate on-call systems so that they feel comfortable having time away.

Opportunities to Rebuild Control:

I often tell my student staff that they can do everything right in a situation, and it can still go wrong. The nature of first response is that you are reacting to whatever is put in front of you. Hopper, Bassuk, and Olivet state that one way to rebuild control is to “emphasize the importance of choice”. One way to bring in choice is level of involvement in incidents. In our current response model, pro-staff respond to most incidents with student staff. I let the responding students decide if they would like to take the lead in the situation, and if they want me to be involved, or if they want me there just as a means of support. I have found that student staff often want to take the lead in situations, because it gives them an opportunity to handle the situation with the knowledge they have of the residents, as well as practice developing their conflict management and crisis response skills. More often than not, I am standing there just as a presence for my student staff, while they harness a situation.

Strengths-Based Approach:

The key to a strengths-based approach is to “focus on the future”, rather than be deficit-oriented (Hopper, Bassuk, Olivet). Student staff are going to make mistakes in their job. It is my job to focus on their strengths, and pull out the areas I know they can excel in. An increase in strengths focused practices increases the confidence of student staff. A confident student who responds to crisis will be more likely to know when they are in over their head, they will have a better idea of what areas they can succeed in, and they will be more likely to seek after-care help as needed.

I often see my student staff respond to situations that may be hard to process. I ask my students to build community and get to know their residents, and it can be difficult to see those same students engage in dangerous behavior or have mental or physical crisis. I believe that if I tailor my supervision to involve trauma informed practices daily, I can set up my student staff for a longer-term growth trajectory that will allow them to respond to these incidents and cope in healthy ways.


Benedek, D., Fullerton, C., Ursano, R., 2007. First Responders: Mental Health Consequences of Natural and Human-Made Disasters for Public Health and Public Safety Workers. Annual Review of Public Health, 28:1, 55-68.

Hopper, E., Bassuk, E., and Olivet, J., 2010. Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-Informed Care in Homelessness Services Settings. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 80-100.

Julia works at the University of Alaska Anchorage as a Residence Coordinator.

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